My encounter with the music and magic of Marjorie Eliot
In the thick of Winter 2010, I began my photographic exploration of the historic district of Sugar Hill. I shot images on the streets, in residents’ homes and in the humming, low-ceilinged jazz club, St. Nick’s Pub. During my time at school, I can recall having received advice from an instructor to visit the home of a resident who entertained the public with live jazz on the weekends. It was advice that remained unheeded until well after graduation.
Several months later, I had a fortuitous meeting with the highly accomplished photographer, Chester Higgins Jr., who promptly introduced me to yet more of Harlem’s magic, including the welcoming home and beautiful music of Marjorie Eliot and her jazz band. I was hooked, and visited whenever I could, bringing along any adventurous guests who may have stumbled into my Harlem home.
In 2011, I was approached to produce a postcard that reflected something idiosyncratic about Harlem. It was easy to be led back to Marjorie’s at-home, jazz sessions. I made many a grainy image – featuring the different performers and the appreciative audience, in the fading window light, and the cyan glow of the ceiling lights in Marjorie’s living-room-turned-concert-hall. At times Marjorie herself would be moved by the music or perhaps a memory, and a tear might escape an eye and slide down a cheek.
Ms. Eliot put up with me invading her home, even graciously welcomed me, outside of the usual public hours, to create a portrait in my slow, deliberate manner. She had had a grueling year and did not want to relive her pain through yet another interview. She did not mind a few pictures.
Yet it was the image I captured of her, as she played the grand piano, beneath an arch of trees and sky, in the Jackie Robinson Park, that became the postcard.
Just Marjorie and the Piano, her soft, powder blue dress forming a triangle from her shoulders to her knees, her posture upright and her head slightly bent in concentration, her feet in smart red slippers, and the bricks of the bandstand blurred behind her. I called the image “Ebony hands on each ivory key”, in tribute to a favourite poet of mine, Langston Hughes, and in thanks to the lovely Marjorie Eliot.